The last place you'd expect to find 200-plus Argentines gathered to watch a basketball game is at a restaurant called "Locos por el Futbol" -- "Crazy for Soccer." Yet this is exactly what has happened all over this South American country in recent weeks, ever since "Manu Mania" took charge.

"Manu Ginobili is the best athlete we have right now," said 13-year-old Matias Nocedal, basking in the glow of seven behemoth big-screen televisions, all of which are tuned in to the NBA Finals to watch the rookie San Antonio Spurs guard make history as the first Argentine in the Finals. Ginobili has risen to the occasion, especially in Game 3 on Sunday when he made a key steal, shot and block in the closing minutes of the Spurs' 84-79 victory over the New Jersey Nets, which gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

"He shows that not only Americans can play basketball," said the lanky teenager, who plays guard in the Buenos Aires City Youth League and idolizes NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and, of course, Ginobili.

In this part of the world, Ginobili's success during his first season with the Spurs has helped convert scores of soccer fanatics into full-blown basketball junkies. Ginobili has been on the cover of every newspaper in town. He is the subject of countless hours of debate on local sports radio. One of the country's biggest public television channels, Canal 9, is airing all the NBA Finals games, making them available to almost every household in Argentina for the first time.

"Let me tell you how big NBA basketball is here now," said Quito Matzkin, 59, a ranch owner who was at "Crazy for Soccer" rooting for the Spurs with his son, Alejandro. "We went to the cattle market the other day, where they buy and sell all the great Argentine beef, and when we got there we saw all the Argentine gauchos sitting around reading the sports section about Ginobili. This is a phenomenon!"

Manu Ginobili, 25, already has an impressive athletic resume. After playing five years in the Argentine leagues, at age 21 he moved to Italy, where he led Virtus Kinder of Bologna to two consecutive Italian league championships and a Euroleague title. It was during this time that he began to attract the attention of NBA scouts. In 1999, the Spurs signed the 6-foot-6 guard after selecting him with their 57th pick in the second round of the NBA draft. Ginobili's overseas experience, athleticism and composure have allowed him to make an immediate impact off the bench. In the postseason, he's averaged 9.2 points and 3.2 steals and 3.8 rebounds, and in 10 of 21 playoff games he's reached double figures in scoring.

"He plays stubbornly and smartly, the European style," said Patrick Heig, 23, an American studying Spanish in Buenos Aires who watched the Finals at "Crazy for Soccer."

While Ginobili is the first Argentine to reach the NBA Finals, he is not the only one with NBA experience. His childhood friend, Pepe Sanchez, a former standout at Temple University, is now a backup guard for the Detroit Pistons. Ruben Wolkowyski, a bulky redheaded center, played for the Boston Celtics earlier this season. The NBA is hoping to raise its profile in South America and will send Ginobili and Denver Nuggets center Nene Hilario (Brazil) on a tour of Argentina and Brazil next month.

Both Ginobili and Sanchez were born in Bahia Blanca, a wind-swept city on the Atlantic coast 350 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. It is known throughout the region as the epicenter of Argentine basketball.

"For many years Bahia Blanca has dominated basketball in Argentina," said Ginobili's father, Jorge, during a phone interview. "It is a city where basketball is the most important sport, because of the tradition and the quality of the game."

Jorge Ginobili says that his home town has always supported basketball both at home and abroad, but especially since Manu's boyhood hero, Michael Jordan, entered the NBA.

"People were always interested in basketball here, but I think when Jordan arrived in the NBA, there was an explosion in all parts of the world," Jorge Ginobili said.

The fervor for the NBA has reached a fever pitch in Bahia Blanca during the Spurs' recent run toward the title. People stop Jorge Ginobili and his wife, Raquel, on the streets to congratulate them. Bahiense del Norte, the local club where Jorge Ginobili and his three sons have played and practiced over the past three decades, has set up a big-screen television to watch Manu Ginobili's games. Reporters from around the world have called to get reaction from the Ginobili family.

"I think this whole thing is something good for us," Jorge Ginobili said. "What, with all the problems that Argentina has now, the people can forget them with sports."

In September of last year, in the midst of Argentina's worst economic crisis in history, the Argentine national basketball team made headlines around the world when it ended the United States' international winning streak at 58 games at the World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis. Argentina's 87-80 victory over the U.S. squad was highlighted by Ginobili's play -- he finished with a team-high 15 points -- and launched Argentina to an eventual runner-up finish behind Yugoslavia.

At the time of the victory over the United States, Argentina's political and banking systems were in disarray; lawmakers had declared a multibillion dollar debt default, the peso had lost more than 60 percent of its value and crime, hunger and unemployment were all on the rise here. Many Argentines openly questioned the policies of the United States and other international organizations, blaming them for the county's economic mess.

"It was a critical moment for Argentina," said Andres Pando, a basketball writer for Ole, a daily sports newspaper here. "All the people here were against the International Monetary Fund and the U.S., and so we say that the victory was a little bit like revenge for us."

The basketball victory came just three months after Argentina's embarrassing first-round exit from soccer's World Cup. Argentine sports fans were looking for something, anything, to feel good about and the success of the national basketball team finally managed to bring the sport to the attention of those who normally stick to a steady diet of soccer, tennis, rugby and Formula One.

Ginobili, by all accounts, is just a regular guy. He lives in San Antonio with his girlfriend, who has been studying at a local university to brush up on her English. Ginobili himself has a gift for gab; with the international press descended on San Antonio last week, Ginobili held news conferences in English, Spanish and Italian. A visit to his personal Web site (www.manuginobili.com) allows readers to get info about Ginobili in the three languages. Argentina has its fair share of petulant athletes, notably soccer legend Diego Maradona, whose God-like status here has been only slightly eroded in recent years by drug abuse and extramarital affairs. Maradona's antics have left many Argentines looking for a new sports hero and, for many, Ginobili fits the bill.

"I think Argentina deserves this," said Alejandro Matzkin, 34, a former basketball writer for a national sports magazine. "The city of Bahia Blanca deserves this for its tradition, but most of all Emanuel Ginobili deserves this because he is better as a person than as a basketball player."

"Manu Mania" has been good for business at "Crazy for Soccer," too. The restaurant's manager, Marcela Minichillo, said people have been calling constantly to ask if they are showing the NBA Finals and to reserve tables in advance. Of course, the restaurant still keeps the soccer faithful coming in; last Wednesday a small contingent of Brazilians and Colombians watched a South American Cup soccer match. They were, however, overwhelmingly outnumbered by Argentines looking to watch Ginobili and the Spurs in Game 1 of the Finals.

"It's a total basketball boom," said Minichillo. "Since the Ginobili phenomenon started, this is the place to be."

The 13-year-old Nocedal will likely be there for the remainder of the NBA Finals, too, sitting beneath the glare of the 47 television screens and rooting for the Spurs. Nocedal is so serious about his basketball career that he has plans to move down to Bahia Blanca in the coming months to play for Bahiense del Norte, where Jorge Ginobili coaches and Manu's hoop dreams started. He said he hopes to follow the same road as his idol Ginobili.

"I think now it is the dream of all Argentine basketball players to play in the NBA," Nocedal said. "Myself included."

Pablo Vazquez is among fans in Argentina who've been captivated by Manu Ginobili's play in NBA Finals.Spurs guard Manu Ginobili is a 25-year-old rookie but, as Dikembe Mutombo and the Nets have found, Ginobili has a veteran's game.